Monday, January 23, 2012
Will the Maine Coon become an American Icon?
by James McGirk
“The most masculine of cats,” tout defenders of the breed, and they are indeed rugged, solid creatures who look as if they ought to be de-mousing a lighthouse on the stormy coast of Maine rather than sprawling on the settee. That is, after all, what they were probably bred for. Picture a cat, a large one, with tufted ears and a lumbering gait and a cheerful disposition; a coat with an undercoat of insulation, and oversized paws fit for trampling snow or scurrying up a tree trunk. Drooping whiskers, a propensity to sprout extra toes on his feet, an unusually expressive tail, and a dour, owlish expression that is almost a pout complete the Maine Coon, a creature on the cusp of entering America’s national pantheon of icons.
The Maine Coon is fast approaching the status of charismatic megafauna like orcas and eagles and howling white wolves. No other breed of cat has starred in so many viral videos, has inspired so many airbrushed t-shirts or so many wretched – and even a few not-so-wretched – tchotchkes as the Maine Coon. A search for “Maine Coon” returns 56.4 million search results, while its longhaired cousin the Persian returns only 8.1 million and the Abyssinian returns a mere 3.4 million. The Coon’s combination of rugged looks and an undeniably goofy disposition seem thoroughly plugged into that folksy vein of Americana that generated Paul Bunyan and his Blue Ox Babe. There is also an almost mystical air to the cat’s provenance.
No one really knows when the first Maine Coon came lumbering out of Maine’s timberlands to sprawl in front of wood stoves, though there are some pretty compelling creation myths floating around on the internet. For the cat to truly become part of America’s enduring iconography of log cabins and cowboys and ironclads and the Stars and Stripes, however, one of these peculiar stories will have to stick. Which one will it be? The most enduring stories cleave close to the facts, and there are a few Maine Coon milestones that are part of the public record.
According to Wikipedia, an F.R. Pierce wrote about a black-and-white coon named Captain Jenks of the Horse Marines in 1861, and by the end of the decade the cats were already being exhibited at the Skowhegan Fair’s Maine State Champion Coon Cat contest. Six of “America’s first indigenous show cats,” as the Cat Fancier’s Association (CFA) describes them, were entered into America’s first-ever cat show in 1895, including the winner, Cosey, a brown mackerel Maine Coon female who took home the silver collar and medal, which are on display to this day in the CFA’s Central Office.
There are three popular, believable Maine Coon creation myths. (There is a fourth anatomically impossible story about Maine Coons evolving from raccoons.) The most common claims that as the French Revolution reached Marie Antoinette’s palace, she and her close friend Captain Samuel Clough loaded her most prized possessions and six of her beloved Turkish Angoras onto a boat headed for America. The French queen was captured and guillotined but her cats made it to Wiscasset, Maine where they mated with the local mongrels to produce the first generation of Maine Coon cats. A second version claims that an English sea captain by the name of Coon hoarded cats aboard his ship, particularly longhaired Angoras and Persians, and whenever he disembarked for a night on the town in New England, his cats would creep ashore too, leaving litters of longhaired kittens the natives called “Coon’s Cats.” A great many of Coon’s cats were polydactyl, cats with extra toes that he claimed made the best ship’s cats because they could better scramble after rats clinging to the rigging and sails of his ship. The last story traces the Coon’s lineage back to the Vikings. When the Norsemen sailed to America in the 11th Century they brought Skogkatts - Norwegian Forest Cats - along with them as mousers, some of whom, like their marauding owners, forced themselves upon the native population, creating the first batch of Maine Coon kittens.
Naturally each of these stories represents a segment of America’s self-image, not to mention taps into the strange culture of raising pedigree felines. Americans, though ostensibly belonging to an egalitarian and democratic culture, love to crow about how they can trace their lineage back to the old country, and many, if prodded, will identify themselves as a distant cousin of Charlemagne or Queen Victoria or Marie Antoinette. So it stands to reason that a splendid, if rugged feline, would have a bit of blue blood bubbling about his veins.
Americans also love to see themselves as a useful people, so it stands to reason that they would want their cats to be useful as well, after all, some of the earliest real mentions of the Maine Coon cat were Maine farmers touting their cats’ intelligence and superb mousing abilities. As for the extra toes, as one might expect from a country of Goliaths surrounded by Davids, Americans aren’t good sportsmen. They don’t mind overwhelming an opponent with superior firepower. An extra claw is really just a signal of American exceptionalism. The Viking story is a counterweight to the Marie Antoinette story. No American wants to be entirely blue-blooded. So, as befitting the country where the first cocktail – the Sazerac - was ever crafted, the Maine Coon is part savage. He has lusty, frothing Viking blood chasing the petticoat-clad Parisian corpuscles around his system. Plus people from Maine (and Minnesota) love to tout their Nordic heritage.
There seems to be something missing from this mélange of stories, however, with one more component these three slivers of story might all snap together and form a credible, lasting creation myth for this all-American cat. Nearly every settler and migrant to the United States of America has come looking for opportunity or fleeing horrific persecution (or often both), so perhaps what the Maine Coon needs to truly nestle into the American collective unconsciousness is a persecution story (a purrsecution story, perhaps). But looking at the cuddly specimen curled up beneath my desk lamp beside me, such a thing is too horrible to contemplate. Maybe since everyone else has a nasty story lurking in his or her past, the Maine Coon will find his way into America’s heart without one.
Posted by James McGirk at 12:25 AM | Permalink